Book Club: Ask Bart Ehrman Anything II

Below is the second installment of Ehrman’s responses to Dish reader questions (the first part is here):

What do you make of the evangelical response to your book, How God Became Jesus?

For a somewhat fuller response, see my blog post. Here I can say that the five evangelical Christians who responded are all good scholars. The purpose of their book was to engage my historical claims at a number of points. Some of the responses I found to be interesting. I ehrman_bart_12_020didn’t actually find any of them convincing, and on the whole I have to say that I was disappointed by the book. What I had hoped was that the book would provide a different historical narrative from the one that I laid out in How Jesus Became God. The respondents regularly accuse me of engaging in “bad” history, but they don’t themselves engage in any historical reconstruction at all. So how is one supposed to compare their views with mine?

The book really is little more than an attack on this point or the other in my discussion. I would love to see how they can imagine that their thesis, that God became Jesus, can be established on historical grounds, rather than theological or religious grounds . My view is that it is impossible for historians to demonstrate what God has done: that’s the province of theologians. If what they want to do is present a theological perspective that differs from my historical one, I have absolutely no problem at all with that. What I object to is their decision to embrace a theological perspective and claim that it is history.

What if anything might change your mind and cause you to again become a believer?

Hmmm … Good question!

I guess a revelation from the Almighty would do it! I’m actually, personally, prone more to belief than disbelief, and would prefer, at the end of the day, to be a believer. Maybe one day I’ll become one again, even though at this stage of my life, I doubt it. For it to happen, realistically, I would need to come to a more comprehensive, synthetic understanding of how this world makes sense if there is a God who is in some sense (any sense) active in it. For me, right now, that simply doesn’t seem to be the case. So many innocent people suffer unspeakable agony and horrific deaths each and every minute, hour, and day – ravaged by starvation, drought, epidemics, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, not to mention war and violence. I simply do not see the hand of God in any of this. I do know what the “answers” are that people give – I used to give them myself, all the time. I just can’t believe them anymore. Maybe at some point that won’t matter to me, although I do side more with Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov on this one, as I explain in my book God’s Problem….

Which religions, if any, deal better with the problem of evil and suffering than Christianity?

I’m not sure any of them deal with it in a way that I find intellectually satisfying, although since I wrote my book God’s Problem I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they have found Buddhism to be much better on just this issue.

Given your thesis that Jesus was not buried in a tomb, based on the evidence that the Romans would not have allowed it, what do you make of the archaeological evidence of crucifixion victims in tombs?

Great question! Unfortunately, we have only one piece of archaeological evidence to go on and it simply doesn’t tell us what we would like to know. In 1968 the remains of a crucified man, named Yehohanan, were discovered in Israel. His skeleton – ankle pierced with an iron stake from crucifixion – was decently buried in an ossuary. This shows, it is argued, that it is conceivable that something similar happened with Jesus. I would agree that this makes it conceivable. Unfortunately, as I have also pointed out, we do not have even the slightest bit of evidence to tell us what happened in Yehohanan’s case, and so we have no way of knowing if it is analogous to the case of Jesus.

Why was an exception made in Yehohanon’s case to place his body in a common tomb? Was his family well-connected? Was he an aristocrat? Was he crucified on the birthday of an emperor (Philo says that such persons were allowed burial)? Was he crucified for insurgency against the state (like Jesus) or for a lower crime (it makes a big difference!). Moreover – was he placed in a tomb the very day he was crucified? We have no way to know. Was his body left to decompose and be eaten by scavengers (the usual punishment) before being entombed? We don’t know. In other words, precisely what we would need to know in order to know if Yehohanan’s case was similar to that of Jesus we don’t know.

What we do know is that there is no evidence that Jesus was executed on the birthday of an emperor; he was not an influential person with high connections (he was not even known in Jerusalem before he appeared the week before); he did not have powerful family members who could intercede on his behalf; his own followers had fled from the scene; and he was not crucified for low-level crimes but on political charges of insurgency. Whatever was the reason that Yehohanan was given a decent burial, it is hard to think why an exception to normal Roman practice would have been made in the case of Jesus (especially given what we know about Pontius Pilate).

I should also say that other scholars have pointed out that since there were thousands of crucified victims in antiquity, and these are the only skeletal remains of a crucified victim to survive, it appears that Yehohanan’s case was highly exceptional, not typical.

What do you think of N.T. Wright’s work on the historical Jesus and early Christianity?

Tom Wright is incredibly prolific and is a brilliant spokesperson for traditional, conservative Christianity. He is also an erudite scholar of enormous breadth. But as it turns out, I disagree with him on almost everything! We have only had one real public debate, dealing with the problem of suffering and how it should affect one’s faith in God. We did not at all see eye to eye. Tom has a kind of global vision of Scripture where he makes the entire 66 books add up together to one grand narrative that he sees as a revelation from God. I see 66 different books written by different authors at different times for different reasons with different messages and different understandings of God, the world, the human condition, and so on. Tom and I simply aren’t on the same page.

It’s seems almost impossible, when writing a book like this, to keep personal biases out of the work. Can you describe how you thought about separating the two during the writing of the book?

My view is that everyone has biases, that there is no way to escape having biases, and that the people you need to look out for are the one who claim that they don’t have biases! Those are the people who want you to agree with them since, after all, they are simply being “objective.” But in fact, they have biases like everyone else, so that their claim is simply a rhetorical strategy.

At the same time, I think there are some biases that are more appropriate for some kinds of research than others. The biases of a historian – e.g., that the past did happen, that there is evidence that some things happened and other things didn’t, that some evidence is better than other evidence, and so on – are appropriate for doing history. On the other hand, the biases of a theologian – e.g. (depending on the theologian) that God both exists and is active in the world and has affected the course of historical events – can be very useful for doing theology, but they are not useful for doing history. And so my view is that a person with those theological views needs to keep those views in check when doing history, just as there are probably views of the critical historian that are not useful for those wanting to do theology.

When I wrote How Jesus Became God I tried to be careful not to make theological claims one way or the other. In the book I do not indicate whether Jesus really was / is God or not, whether he really was raised from the dead, whether he really is living today in heaven, and on on. Those are all theological claim. But my book is a historical account. My view is that Christians and non-Christians can agree with the history I lay out, even if they come to different theological conclusions. (I know that’s the case because before I sent the book into my publisher I gave it to four scholars to read for comments about how to improve it; all four were Christians; all four had no problems with its historical views)

Read the entire Book Club discussion of Ehrman’s book here.

Book Club: Ask Bart Ehrman Anything I

As the first Dish book club draws to a close, the author of How Jesus Became God was gracious enough to answer your questions about his book. Below is the first installment of his responses:

Has changing your mind about a major question, like when Christians believed Jesus to be divine, caused you to rethink any of your other positions about the historical Jesus or early Christianity?

My views of the historical Jesus have not changed at all. Ever since graduate school I have thought that Albert Schweitzer was basically right (though wrong in the details) in understanding Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet who anticipated that God was soon going to intervene in history in order to overthrow the forces of evil and bring in a good how-jesus-became-godkingdom on earth. That continues to be the most widely held view among critical scholars in Europe and North America. Understanding that Jesus was this kind of teacher/preacher is important for my book, since Jesus almost certainly did not teach his disciples that he was God, but that God’s kingdom was soon to arrive and they needed to prepare for it.

Where my views have changed involves the key question of what Jesus’ followers thought about him after his death. The view I held for many years was that the earliest Christians did not think of Jesus as truly God until late in the first century, when the Gospel of John portrays him as declaring himself to be divine. In doing my research for How Jesus Became God, I became convinced that this was absolutely wrong. The followers of Jesus declared that Jesus was God as soon as they came to believe that he had been raised from the dead. Already at that point they maintained that God had made him a divine being. And that was the beginning of Christology.

Eventually some Christians came to think that it was not at his resurrection that he had been made God, but at his baptism; some came to think that it was earlier, at his conception; and some then came to think that he had been a pre-existent divine being before coming into the world. But it all started not in later decades, but at the very beginning, in the belief that he had been raised from the dead.

You firmly put Jesus in his context as first century Jewish apocalyptic preacher, but are there any ways in which he was different from the other would-be messiahs most of us have never heard of?

Yes indeed! Jesus was certainly different from other ones, for no other reason than that all of us is different from everyone else. So he must, virtually by definition, have been different. His bookclub-beagle-troverarching message was not radically different from the one proclaimed by others (e.g., John the Baptist). But what made him especially different in my judgment is two things. First, he taught that he would be the king of the kingdom that was soon to come (John the Baptist never said any such thing about himself) and that those who followed his specific teachings would be the ones who would enter that kingdom. And second, unlike every other alleged messiah from antiquity, Jesus alone was thought by his disciples to have been raised from the dead. That changed everything, as I try to show in my book.

If the Gospels are as unreliable and contradictory as you make them out to be, why trust any parts of them for information about the historical Jesus?

In many respects the Gospels are like any other historical source for any historical event or person – whether a source from the 50s or the 1950s. Every source has problems, and historians when using sources have to determine what those problems are and how to get around them in order to use the sources to establish what most probably happened in the past. So I don’t believe in having any different approach to the Gospels from that which you would have to any other ancient source – for example, Plutarch, or Suetonius, or Philostratus, or … choose your author!

Scholars have methods for dealing with sources that are contradictory and filled with non-historical information. They are pretty much the methods you yourself use when trying to figure out what really happened when several people tell you different things and sometimes tell you versions of what happened that are obviously biased. You look for elements of their accounts that are consistent with each other (especially if they haven’t conferred to get their stories straight) and that do not reflect the biases they have and that are plausible given everything else you know about the events (general plausibility). That, in rough form, is what historians do when dealing with the Gospels. I should stress that the problem with the Gospels isn’t simply a problem that I have, and these methods for approaching the Gospels are not ones I came up with. All of this is standard material for anyone working in the field of New Testament studies.

Why does the Gospel writer refer to ‘the beloved disciple’ without mentioning his name? Is there a deeper meaning?

That’s been a very long-standing question. Some interpreters have argued that the Beloved Disciple of the Fourth Gospel is someone that we know of otherwise – e.g., John the son of Zebedee, or Lazarus, or Mary Magdalene, and so on. None of these identifications is overly persuasive. It is sometimes thought that he is a symbolic figure who is meant to stand over-against Peter in the Gospel (with whom he is often teamed). Others have thought that he is the source of the author’s information for the Gospel, a disciple known to the community in which the Gospel was written who knew Jesus and was the guarantor of the information found in the Gospel, who did not need to be named because he was well known and was simply called, by his own followers, “the one whom Jesus loved.” I’m not convinced by any of the proposals myself, but don’t have a better one to suggest.

Would it be worthwhile to compose a spare, modern “gospel,” focusing squarely on the historical Jesus, including only the best-attested material, and eliminating some of the more dubious content from the later synoptics?

Yes, that has been tried a number of times – most notably by Thomas Jefferson in the Jefferson Bible (still widely available) and, possibly less notably, and in a different way, by the modern-day Jesus seminar in its book The Five Gospels, which indicates the passages that, in the opinion of the scholars in the seminar, are more likely to be historically authentic.

Could some of the difficulties Islam is having right now be mitigated by textual criticism of Islamic scripture similar to the kind that you engage in?

I wish I knew the answer to that one! But I’m not an expert in Islam, I’m afraid.

What did you think of Reza Aslan’s Zealot, another book on the historical Jesus that’s been in the news?

Aslan is a professor of creative writing, and as a result, and as you would respect, he writes extremely well. Zealot is a real pleasure to read. Unfortunately, Aslan is not trained at the advanced level in the New Testament, classics, ancient history, the history of early Christianity, or any other field of relevance for discussing, authoritatively, the life and teachings of Jesus. And I’m afraid that this shows rather glaringly in his book, as he makes many, many mistakes both about historical detail (e.g, involving Roman history or the history of the early followers of Jesus) and about the Gospels of the New Testament and about Jesus himself. I give lots of examples on my blog in a series of posts that I gave in December (see one example here). The other thing to say is that his overarching thesis is not new, even though he more or less intimates it is. The first scholar of the Enlightenment to write about the historical Jesus (H. Reimarus) had a very similar thesis. I.e., it’s been around since the end of the 18th century and the vast majority of scholars have found in unconvincing, for reasons I lay out, again, at length in my blog.

The second part of his responses will be posted soon. Read the entire Book Club discussion on Ehrman’s book here.

Book Club: Can Modernity Survive Without Christianity?

A reader adds a final twist to the debate:

You started the Dish book club by asking if Christianity can survive modernity, and the discussion that ensued proves, I think, what a challenging – and open – question that remains. Ever since that first post of yours, however, I haven’t been able to shake a different question: can modernity survive without Christianity?

I’m no reactionary, and I have little patience for those who reject, wholesale, the scientific and technological advances of modern life. But glancing at the world around us can be incredibly dispiriting, from our destruction of nature to the rapaciousness of global capitalism to wars and rumors of wars. And that’s to say nothing of the lurking sense many of us have that finding meaning in contemporary life only is becoming more difficult, that there’s a soullessness at the heart of our modern way of life, a rotten center beneath the glittering surface of all our would-be achievements.

In a strange way, what I’ve just described makes me hopeful for the future of Christianity, because I can’t think of circumstances in which the message of Jesus and the core tenets of Christianity are more needed. They teach us that all our achievements have a dark side, that good and evil grow together in history, that our fallibility and fallenness touch everything we do, serving to warn us against unalloyed ambition and striving, and a facile optimism. It surely is no accident that two of the 20th century’s greatest Christian thinkers, Michael Oakeshott and Reinhold Niebuhr, thought the ancient tale of the Tower of Babel especially resonated with our times.

Even more, to borrow Oakeshott’s phrase, Christianity is the religion of non-achievement. Jesus taught us to consider the lilies of the field and take no thought for tomorrow. Could there be a more radical message for our age, an age that grows ever more frantic, ever more competitive, and in which wealth and power are ever more eagerly sought after?

Many of us are doubtful, I think, that we can continue on the path we are treading, that our unceasing more, more, more can be sustainable, or provide happiness. Jesus offers us a way of life that inverts these values, that shows us their futility. This non-instrumental approach to living is more timely than ever.

But most of all – and I know I risk sentimentality here – when reduced to its most basic idea, Christianity holds, and Jesus showed us, that God is love. Love and forgiveness and mercy are deeper than suffering and hate, they are what we are made for, our truest calling. Love is “the greatest of these,” and what Jesus told us to do when he summarized the entirety of the moral law. Man’s failure to love, of course, is a perennial sin. Yet the call to love takes on added resonance when the reach of our power and the consequences of our decisions impact ever more people. At no time in history has the question, “Who is my neighbor?” mattered more, or demanded a more expansive answer. We need to be reminded that the duties of love have no limits, that every human life is precious and fragile, and that “the least of these” particularly demand our attention and care.

Thinking about these matters, I come back again and again to this passage from Romano Guardini, a Jesuit priest, which Walker Percy chose as the epigraph to his novel The Last Gentleman:

We know that the modern world is coming to an end…At the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies…Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world, but the more precious will be that love which flows from one lonely person to another…The world to come will be filled with animosity and danger, but it will be a world open and clean.

I’ve always thought that modern, Western moral and political thought was more dependent on Christianity than most realize. For a long time we’ve lived in a halfway house, where we want the “values” derived from Christianity – the dignity of the individual, equality, and compassion – without faith itself. As Nietzsche derisively put it, we’ve rejected the Church but not its poison. Maybe what we’re hurtling toward is a moment when having it both ways no longer is tenable. Maybe, as Guardini claims, our dangerous world, in which love is so strikingly absent, will force us to again turn our gaze toward the wandering preacher from Nazareth, whose words we finally will have ears to hear, as if for the first time.

Book Club: Why Does Jesus Need To Be Divine?

A reader writes:

Question: If there is no God, what becomes of Christianity?  I think for many religious people, if there is no God, they would feel that there is no point.  No point to life.  No point to religion.  Christianity would lose its meaning and significance.  It would become a sham.  People have a strong desire for some ultimate meaning, for “truth,” for a final reward or punishment, for an afterlife, and in their view, these things require a deity (how else could they exist?). And if there is no God, then the core attraction of religion is gone.

But just the same, as a thought experiment, let’s imagine there is no God.  Nothing supernatural in the universe.  Let’s imagine that hatchescross.jpgJesus was not the Son of God, but merely a charismatic and radical teacher of a new form of love and compassion who so inspired his followers that they were willing to die for him. Let’s assume that the scriptures were not divinely inspired writings, but merely the product of the greatest authors over a millennium of human history.  Let’s say that all of the awe inspiring cathedrals, the soulful hymns and music, two thousand years of Christian paintings and sculpture, let’s say all of that was the product solely of the human heart and mind.  No help from the outside.  And finally, let’s imagine that all human acts of amazing sacrifice, generosity, bravery and compassion (even if the person was inspired by religious belief) were entirely and exclusively humans acts.

Where would this leave Christianity?  Would it be any less?  Would its teachings be false?  Would the strength and inspiration it provides be any less real?  Somewhat to my surprise, when I engage in this thought experiment, I find it uplifting.

Christianity becomes not some gift from God, but instead a wondrous example of human potential.  What thoughts we can have!  What beauty we can create!  God doesn’t get the credit – we do.  Rather than exalting Jesus, if you take God out of Christianity, you end up exalting all of humanity.

And the nice thing is, this understanding easily accommodates all of the bad aspects of religion too.  All the manipulation and abuse, all the false pretense and religious justification for horrible behavior.  Pretty much everyone agrees that those are human distortions of “true religion.”  Nobody blames God for that.  Humans take the blame (rightly so), so why don’t we get the credit when things go right?  No guessing about when it’s God will, or human distortion – it’s always us.  We get the credit, we get the blame.

Seems like a pretty conservative notion to me.  In the end, we, humanity, are the responsible party.

Yes, and we have a lot to be proud of. But doesn’t this accretion of cultural genius and human love point back, at the end, to something more perfect? As we ascend from the lowest forms of our nature, do we not chart a trajectory beyond it? Does this experience not help us understand the meaning of the word “divine” – to be human and yet not to fear death, to be human and yet to choose love over hate, to be human and yet be at peace with everything? “And all will be well. And all will be well. And all manner of thing will be well.”

Jesus, Christianity teaches, was very much human. But wasn’t his transcendence of so much of that humanness something that, in retrospect, his friends and disciples also believed to be divine? It’s the sacramental mixture of the two that captures the essence of Christianity, and its eternal mystery. There is something about humanity that intimates the divine.

Book Club: Can Christianity Survive Modernity? Ctd

Readers take stock of the conversation:

Your original question, “Can Christianity survive modernity?” has two dimensions to it, only one of which is addressed in Ehrman’s book. That’s the question of how modern scholarship sees the scriptural and historical record of Jesus and his age. But another, how-jesus-became-godoverlapping issue is also brought to bear by modernity. The Christian tradition about who Jesus was, and how his Divinity can be defined, is bounded by a very particular set of notions about God that in an earlier era were either forcibly isolated from the rest of the world’s religious cultures, or only passively separated by the limits of those times.

But in the modern age, when vast amounts of historical knowledge of not just Christianity, but the rest of the world is readily available, we now know what multiple branches of Hinduism thinks, what the various sects of Buddhism understand, what Bahai believes, what Taosim grasps about the nature of the cosmos, what shamanism discovers, even what secular mystical and hallucinogenic experience has to offer, and and so on. The modern mind isn’t just confronted with scholarly knowledge of Christianity’s real past; it’s also confronted by a whole range of experiential and conceptual knowledge about God, Divinity, and ultimate reality, including of course modern science itself. And the two can’t be separated anymore. That’s the dilemma of Christianity’s confrontation with modernism in a nutshell.

Another:

In arguing that Ehrman’s book does not “effectively debunk Christianity’s core claims in modernity,” I am struck by how elastic and indefinite the responses of you and your readers of faith are as to the notions of truth and Christian doctrine generally.   That is not meant as criticism, just an observation. One reader valued “the messiness and contradictions in the gospel accounts” as a virtue itself.  Another reader said the “literal truth or untruth [of the story of Christ] is of little to no interest,” and the practicing Catholic reader believes that the foundational doctrines of his church are “of course” not accurate because the truth of Jesus’s life and message can’t be known.  An earlier reader explicitly bookclub-beagle-tradvised you “to consider steering clear of words like ‘truth.'”

Is it then the better question to ask “whether postmodernism can save Christianity?”  And does the new historical research require a postmodern religious approach?  If so, what are the implications of that? It could strengthen and deepen Christianity’s core message and appeal.  But maybe not.  It seems certain to be consequential though.  Will this approach favor liberal Protestant faiths but pose a greater challenge to the more institutional Catholic Church?  If Christian doctrinal truths are admittedly unknowable and subjective to both Gospel writers and readers, does that mean that choosing between different Christian denominations is ultimately only a matter of personal comfort and/or inertia?  Or might this approach – as fundamentalists would argue – logically and inevitably weaken Christianity’s claim against competing faiths?

Another:

I’m an engineer and a recent convert to Catholicism (although I was always careful to say that I followed Dorothy Day, not Paul Ryan).  I know that my conversion process was not rational.  My overwhelming experience of something I can only call Grace has shattered every conviction I had about who I was, who/what God was, and my place in this universe.

I get impatient with those, on both sides, who try to use evidence to prove or disprove religious concepts. A scientist used modern tissue analysis as proof that a Eucharistic Miracle happened.  I felt that same impatience reading Ehrman’s book. None of these investigations have any relevance in comparison to my lived experience of Christ.

It’s not that I don’t think such investigations have value. I just see them as belonging to a realm of inquiry that is disconnected from my relationship with God.  If the Eucharistic Miracle turns out to be pig blood or the disciples had hallucinations of Jesus brought on by grief, it just doesn’t change anything about what happens when I pray.  It seems to me that a faith resting on such proofs is disconnected from the Source of faith.  For myself, I am better off learning how to tap into that Source more deeply and regularly.

I recently went on a pilgrimage to Assisi, the home of St. Francis and St. Claire.  They were declared saints soon after their deaths. Many artifacts of their lives were preserved within the lifetimes of those who knew them, and the town itself has been a place of pilgrimage ever since.  Pilgrims can be assured that the artifacts are real. When you walk the streets of Assisi, you are walking in the paths of the millions of pilgrims who came there to worship, contemplate and pray.  Even my agnostic husband felt the presence of so many souls seeking peace.

On the same trip, we saw a piece of wood that St. Helena claimed to be part of the table from the Last Supper, now preserved in the papal basilica of St. John Lateran.  She found it in the early 300s.  Who knows if it’s real?  For 1700 years, the faithful have venerated it as a connection back to the last peaceful moments Jesus had with his community of disciples, moments we recall every time we celebrate the Eucharist.

That veneration makes it holy.  The pilgrims make Assisi holy.  We make Christ holy. First the disciples and then the 2,000-year-old Christian community of the faithful experienced Jesus as someone extraordinary.  Jesus brought a powerful message that has come down through the ages and drawn millions of souls towards a stronger connection with the Source of faith, and more just, loving and care-taking relationships with each other.  How could the manifestation of such a person not be celebrated as miraculous?

Another:

You wrote, “I cannot rationally reconcile the divine and the human as single concept. But my faith, my personal experience of Jesus, forces me to accept it.”

And in so doing you are essentially recapitulating the experience of the disciples and the church. They tried every other explanation for what they had seen and heard, and none of them captured the length and breadth and depth and height of this man’s life.  So they were forced to come up with a formulation that made no sense, because it was the only thing that MADE sense.  Like the scientists who have to hold the absurd formulation that light is BOTH a particle and a ray, because only under those circumstances can they actually use their mathematics to make the equations correspond with the observed facts.

Credo quia absurdum. 

Book Club: Was There An Empty Tomb?

Resurrection

A reader challenges a part of Ehrman’s book we haven’t discussed yet:

Reading your thoughts and the reader responses so far, I’m surprised no one has mentioned Ehrman’s claim, in Chapter Four, that Jesus most likely wasn’t given a proper burial, meaning there was no tomb for his resurrection to leave empty – nor an actual body left to be resurrected, as theological orthodoxy would seem to demand. An excerpt from this chapter was recently featured on The Daily Beast, in which Ehrman makes this explicit: “Without an empty tomb, there would be no ground for saying that Jesus was physically raised.” And clearly, as Ehrman shows in his book, the “empty tomb” features prominently in Christian apologetics on this issue. The idea that Jesus really was buried allows Christians to ask, “Well, then what did happen to Jesus’ body?” If he wasn’t eaten by dogs, then we need to somehow account for his body, which people certainly would have been looking for after his followers started saying he was raised from the dead. Or so the argument goes.

bookclub-beagle-trAs it happens, the chapter on this issue by Craig Evans in the evangelical response to Ehrman’s book was the one I actually found perhaps most persuasive, and your readers should be aware of it. Evans cites a variety of ancient texts – including passages from Philo, Josephus, and Roman legal documents – that give us good reasons to think Roman authorities were tolerant of Jewish religious customs. It would take too long to go through all of Evans’ evidence, but their cumulative force is striking, and he makes clear that his argument especially concerns what the Romans allowed in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious life, where religious demands for performing certain rites, like the burial of the dead, would have been especially forceful (Jews in other places, such as Alexandria, seemed to fare worse).

Even Ehrman’s own book unwittingly offers evidence for this. Recall the account he gives of Pontius Pilate erecting images of the Roman emperor in Jerusalem, which violated Jewish beliefs about “graven images.” What happened after the Jewish uproar over this? They were removed.

Evans also makes clear that tolerance for Jewish burial customs extended, in various circumstances, to those who were crucified. Most interestingly, in my view, is the archaeological evidence he marshals on this point.

He walks the reader through examples we have of tombs and (more frequently) ossuaries containing the remnants of those crucified or nails of the kind used in crucifixions covered in calcium, meaning they were once in human bones. In short, not everyone who was crucified, and certainly not all Jews, were simply left for the wild dogs or carrion birds to eat. Evans cites Jodi Magness, a Jewish archaeologist at Ehrman’s own UNC-Chapel Hill, who summarizes the matter this way:

Gospel account of Jesus’ burial are largely consistent with the archaeological evidence. Although archaeology does not prove there was a follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea or that Pontius Pilate granted his request for Jesus’ body, the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial are consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law.

And speaking of Joseph of Arimathea, Evans argues that even that story has some real credence. Because the Sanhedrin, or Jewish Council, delivered Jesus to the Roman authorities, they would have been responsible for arranging a proper burial. So whether or not Joseph actually existed, the broad outline of the story he figures in is, according to Evans, reasonably consonant with the customs of the day.

Lastly, Ehrman makes a big deal of the fact that in the early creed Paul cites in his first letter to the how-jesus-became-godCorinthians, it merely says “And he was buried” rather than “And he was buried in a tomb.” When I read Ehrman’s book, I couldn’t understand quite why that mattered. Being buried implies a tomb, or a grave of some kind, but regardless being buried is not the same as being left to the dogs. Evans makes exactly the same point. And as for the supposed lack of symmetry in the creed – the line corresponding to the one just mentioned says “And he appeared to Cephas,” which leads Ehrman to think Joseph should be noted as the one who buried Jesus – Evans makes the reasonable point that naming who Jesus appeared to after his resurrection would be a far more important detail to include than the name of who buried Jesus, so the comparison doesn’t quite hold. Of course, maybe Joseph wasn’t named because that particular tradition arose later, but even if it did, the lack of knowing exactly who buried Jesus does nothing to alter the other contextual evidence that leads Evans to argue that it wouldn’t have been unusual for Jesus, a Jew in Jerusalem, to be given a proper burial.

Overall, then, this is one point where my layman reading of both sides of the argument makes me lean toward Ehrman’s evangelical critics.

Agreed. Another critical point worth reiterating in this context: perhaps the most striking thing in the book is that Ehrman explicitly states he has changed his mind as to when the belief in Jesus’ divinity arose. He used to think it came about decades later, but is now convinced by the evidence that the resurrection was a very early Christian belief. So the empty tomb is a real possibility and the resurrection was claimed by the earliest Christians. Sometimes religious beliefs are weakened by historical evidence; but sometimes they are actually strengthened.

(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com rather than the main account, and please try to keep them under 500 words. Painting: The Resurrection Of Jesus by Piero Della Francesca.)

Book Club: Apocalypse Then

A reader writes:

Beyond all the crap about resurrection, Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who predicted the end of the world would come very soon, probably in his own lifetime. And that realization colors how I view Jesus’ most important message.

I am not a Christian. But my religious identity has nothing to do with belief (what do I know?) and everything to do with the way I live my life. The only parts of the New Testament that I admire are Jesus’ parables and his teachings. Leave your family. Give up material things and live in poverty. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t show off or try to be better than others. This is radical stuff – a lifestyle I respect, but am too cowardly and weak to pursue. Therefore, I do not call myself a Christian, because I cannot live up to Jesus’ commands. And as far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t live like Jesus (i.e. a vagabond) has no right to call himself a Christian.

So a big thought hit me hard: Jesus’ unique and radical teachings only make sense because he was an apocalyptic preacher. Leave your family and pay no attention to tomorrow because the world is about to end. In the context of the end of the world, it all makes sense. Of course you should abandon material things; they’re all about to be wiped away.

So now I’m left with this conundrum: Jesus’ teachings only work against a background of imminent destruction. AND, obviously, the world did not end. Does that then invalidate his teaching? Without the apocalypse at the foundation of Jesus’ ministry, aren’t we badly misinterpreting what he really meant?

We’re certainly avoiding a rather obvious point: one of Jesus’ most emphatic predictions in his lifetime was wrong. Dead wrong. Now you can try and elide this by insisting that he didn’t put a date on the end of the world, but that ignores the urgency of his warnings. Does that invalidate Jesus’ teaching, as my reader suggests? Well, the first thing to say is that Christianity spread rapidly even as its main prediction turned out to be wrong. And, as Ehrman notes, it seems that the reality of the belief in the resurrection is what galvanized and sustained this religious movement after its guru’s untimely and dishonorable death. The resurrection occluded the failed prophesy.

how-jesus-became-godDoes that in turn render the radicalism of Jesus’ calls for total poverty, homelessness and suffering less powerful? I’d say it makes them more powerful. They become less a last-minute preparation for the end-times than a deeper and more radical critique of worldliness in all its forms. They become less a means to an end, and more an end in themselves. And Jesus taught these things, in the Gospels, without constantly referring to them as mere end-times necessities. Power over others is to be foresaken as an eternal truth about human life; wealth is an obstacle to happiness; what matters at all times is being present to others and to God, not running around with this goal or that; forgiving makes you happier than bearing grudges; revenge only perpetuates the cycle of hatred, rather than breaking it. All of these counter-intuitive ideas are our true destiny as humans if we can only master them. They are the only sure means to internal and external peace.

Now, of course, other religious traditions speak of similar things. You can see in Buddhism, for example, the insight that possessions hurt rather than help. You can see in Taoism the wisdom of letting go, of seeking peace by striving for less. And all of these impulses – which contradict what we now understand as our evolutionary nature – transcend “the restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” This profound insight – the early Christians believed – didn’t come from within us, but somehow from above us. And a person who walks this Bronzino-Christ-Nicewalk is indeed living as close to divinity as human beings can get.

This insight is perhaps encapsulated by the word logos, a form of divine wisdom about how to be happy and at peace through the law of love; and it is easy to see why Jesus’ life and example came to seem to his subsequent followers an incarnation of this logos, which of course is eternal. And Jesus’ decision to embrace his own torture and death with stunning equanimity and compassion represented the pinnacle of that divine achievement. How many of us could forgive those driving nails into our body? How many would stand by and say nothing when we are accused of something we never did? The Passion narrative is crafted to show how deeply Jesus walked the walk. It is by giving that we receive. It is by forgiving that we can be forgiven. Even in extremis. We will all die some day – which is our own looming apocalypse. And the only true way of grappling with that is through Christ’s logos.

Another reader:

I want to ask, (1) can a believer truly be open to evidence that Jesus, perhaps at one part of his life, said and believed things very different from what we normally attribute to him, and (2) can one – can a Christian – be open to the idea that, in these early beliefs at least, Jesus was wrong?

Take the body of assertions from Chapter 3 [in Ehrman’s book] about Jesus as an itinerant apocalyptic preacher.

I have heard such descriptions of John the Baptist and Jesus previously, but this is perhaps the first time when the sheer weight of these statements hit home. Ehrman’s evidence – supported by his criteria of independent attestation and dissimilarity – helped me to appreciate just how often the texts focus, as a whole, on judgment, on punishment, on reversals of ultimate fortune, and especially on a rhetoric of fear (and joy) in the face of an imminent end.  This vision of Jesus’ early and perhaps entire ministry seems as well founded as anything in the book.

But if you accept that we can indeed have a sense of what Jesus said and what Jesus meant by his apocalyptical proclamations – if we can get a sense of what these word meant in their historical and textual context – then how can this not have an effect on what one thinks of Jesus?

Sheep and goats; burning and wailing; shame and sinfulness; and the righteousness of new and better judgment: these are words that embody, for me, not an abiding love of humanity, but a mainly a hatred of sin. They do not promise to redeem creation, but rather revel in visions of un-creation, of joyous destruction.  These pronouncements do not so much love justice as much they enjoy imagining the punishment of injustice.  In loving God, this Jesus hates the world.

As a historical fact and a textual interpretation, this reading may be correct or incorrect.  But what if, on the whole, it seems right? What can one, as a Christian, do with these words and feelings?

We can balance them, I’d say, by other words and feelings, and see what was truly radical and new in Jesus’ teaching about how to live and die independently of the apocalyptic vision. But we cannot ignore that side completely. Jesus, Christian believe, was both fully human and fully divine. The human part was bound up in the culture and history of his time, its apocalyptic background, and its roots in Jewish scripture. The divine part escaped that. To believe in the Incarnation requires one to accept both, and to live with a Jesus we will never fully master and never totally understand.

(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Please email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com rather than the main account, and try to keep them under 500 words.)

Update from a reader:

It seems to me a big reason Christianity spread after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, is that his followers began to reexamine his apocalyptic predictions in light of their post-Pentecost experiences. They understood “the age to come” to have actually begun – an age defined by the upside-down Kingdom Jesus had announced in his teachings, in which the last were now first, the greatest were those who served, and Jesus – not the Caesar whose government had put him to death – was Lord. The apocalyptic signs were all around them: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2).

They had no reason to disbelieve Jesus on account of his prophecies not coming true; they were now living in the new age he had predicted would come.

Another:

Enjoying this thread. There are other interpretations of Jesus’ prophetic “mistake” about the literal end of the whole world, which does seem like a pretty big paradox for literalists. Instead, lots of the end times prophecies/symbolism make sense when interpreted as applying to the ~70CE Jewish rebellion against Roman hegemony and consequent destruction of the Temple and massive slaughter of the population of Jerusalem, followed by Nero’s persecution of the early Christians. This lines up nicely with the modern dating of the texts in the New Testament (soon after the historical events), and means we can end the idiotic game of deciding which contemporary political figures are candidates for the role of anti-Christ (though that game is too popular to end anytime soon).

Another:

Wow – great insights from the readers! “In loving God Jesus hates the world.” Strong stuff, and not to be dismissed lightly, since it has remained one pole of the dialectic that has driven Christianity from the outset. The “little apocalypse” of Jerusalem’s fall to Titus solves part of the problem, but it does not really reach the deeper issue, if Christ is speaking to mankind and not just the Jews. The response that the Pentecost renders immediate the new age is intriguing, but it cannot resolve the other great failed prophecy stated in the kerugma – the declaration of the Christian’s faith reduced to its essence: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.

Paul, the architect of the Church, understood Christ’s return to be imminent, like the prophecy of the apocalypse. Like the reader who suggests, correctly in my view, that Christ’s preaching of radical divestiture is made within the context of apocalypse, Paul preaches that his congregations must live their lives not in anticipation of Christ’s return, but live them in preparation for his return – tomorrow. As Christians, we can rationalize, but that path leads nowhere, I think. Best perhaps to focus on the here and now.